photo by Steve Dewall
Interview by Robin CookMudhoney has never behaved like other rock bands. They were the one of the first Seattle bands to capture national attention but one of the last to jump to a major label. As long hair and "grunge fashion" (read: flannel and thrift shop clothes) became the wardrobe of choice for rock stars, Mudhoney were cutting their hair. While other bands advertised their private angst, Mudhoney interviews were gleeful snarkfests. Rather than follow the same endless treadmill as other bands, Mudhoney would take a year or two off to go back to school or play in innumerable side bands. And perhaps most remarkably, Mudhoney has remained together after most of their peers have faded.
Mudhoney's story begins in 1983 when singer/guitarist Mark Arm was introduced to guitarist Steve Turner by a mutual friend, Alex Shumway. Arm was majoring in English at the University of Washington and playing in a band called Mr. Epp and the Calculations (named for a high school math teacher). Turner would join Mr. Epp for the group's final months. Arm, Shumway, and Turner then teamed up with a Montana transplant named Jeff Ament and a classmate of Turner's named Stone Gossard to form Green River. Turner left after 1985's Come on Down (Homestead), and Green River continued with replacement Bruce Fairweather, releasing an EP, Dry as a Bone, and an album, Rehab Doll, on a local label called Sub Pop.
When Green River called it a day in 1987, Arm and Turner form Mudhoney with bassist Matt Lukin (former Melvins bassist and inspiration for the Pearl Jam song of the same name) and drummer Dan Peters while Gossard and Ament would wind up as founders of another legendary Seattle combo, Pearl Jam itself. Within months of starting out, Mudhoney emerged as standard-bearers for the fertile Seattle music scene, touring Europe and being interviewed by English rock journalists. After 1991's Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, the band jumped from Sub Pop to Warner Brothers, releasing three albums (the tepid Piece of Cake and the excellent My Brother the Cow and Tomorrow Hit Today).
During all this time, the members played in all kinds of outside bands: the Thrown-Ups, Monkeywrench, the Fall-Outs, Bloodloss, and Press Corps. Dan Peters filled in on drums for a pre-Dave Grohl Nirvana, while Turner has released two solo albums in a folk-pop vein. Arm toured with the reunited MC5 and played in Wylde Rattz with Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, Mike Watt, and Ron Asheton.
Lukin left in 1999, and the band took another hiatus before re-emerging on Sub Pop with a new bassist, Guy Maddison (ex-Bloodloss/Lubricated Goat). For 2002's Since We've Become Translucent, the band expanded their sound, adding horns and recording with different engineers at different studios. They continued this approach with their new album, Under a Billion Suns.
PSF spoke to Mark Arm about the band, Bo Diddley, Toni Basil, the new record, the state of the world, and everything in between.
PSF: You mentioned that when you formed the band that you sort of had this idea of what you wanted the band to sound like. Do you want to elaborate on that?
MA: Well, you know, when we were kicking the idea of starting something out, we were really looking towards a couple of Australian bands--the Scientists and Feed Time in particular, as well as bands we loved for a long time like the Stooges and the MC5 and Blue Cheer and the Wipers, you know, and even Neil Young... and Alice Cooper. These were kind of like the things that had been with us for a while, and that we were not hearing at the time. I don't know if you really remember what college radio and mainstream radio sounded like in the mid-eighties, but bands like Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers and Big Black were by far the exception and not the rule. Most of alternative radio was, you know, the Cure, the Mighty Lemon Drops, and the Cult, and then on mainstream radio was just like the same shit we'd been hearing in the seventies plus Poison. So the brand of rock and roll that we were looking for was not being played, so we decided to make it ourselves.
PSF: I'm wondering, what was the first record you ever heard that made you think, "Wow, this is what I want to do. I want to get up there and play guitar."
MA: It was probably the first album I bought. But at the time, I didn't know how to play guitar at all. I just jumped around in my living room when my parents weren't around air-guitaring, and that would've been, like, the Sweet, Desolation Boulevard. But the idea of actually playing guitar--you know, this is like seventh grade--was so far out of my field of vision and the realm of possibility until punk rock came along. It seems like in the seventies, if you wanted to be a band, you had to be a musician. And it turned out that the first band I was in [Mr. Epp and the Calculations], we basically bought instruments and learned how to play them. We went at it, I guess, through the back door. And I don't think we would've even maybe understood... well, we might've stumbled upon that thing but it was the whole punk rock thing, and I'm not just talking about safety pins and all that shit, but I guess the DIY aesthetic that was happening... I'm also talking about PiL or Flipper, bands that didn't sound exactly like punk rock.
PSF: With Flipper, they were so radically different from, say, the Ramones or any of those other bands. I guess you could say they were sort of a prototype for some music that might have come out of Seattle about ten years later. I don't know how else to put it.
MA: Yeah, Flipper was a lot gnarlier... They were gnarlier and smarter. These guys were almost like philosophy students that had been taking a lot of drugs. And the guitar player [Ted Falconi], his guitar playing is indecipherable, there's no way you can tell what he's playing. Ted Falconi's guitar playing is amazing, but it's not like bar chords or any normal way of playing at all. But the whole thing is kind of anchored down by the bass and drums and then Ted's just making this crazy noise over the top of it. And in fact that was a major idea behind Mr. Epp. The guy who was in the band who was the drummer was the only guy who knew how to play. And we're like, "Well, as long as we have kind of a beat, you can kind of do anything you want over the top of it." (laughs)
PSF: I also once heard a Mr. Epp track called "Mohawk Man."
MA: Right, that actually got played on "Rodney and the Roq" [Rodney Bigemheimer's radio show]. In one Flipside, he used to have that Rodney and the Rock Top 20 or whatever and in one Flipside, we were above Toni Basil's "Mickey."
PSF: You were higher than Toni Basil's "Mickey." That's great!
MA: The next issue she totally eclipsed us. (laughs)
PSF: I know that originally you've said that what you wanted to do was do a few singles, have some fun, and then you go over to England and you're on the front page of Melody Maker and New Music Express and--what other papers?--Sounds. Was that overwhelming for you?
MA: It wasn't overwhelming. It was kind of weird. It was crazy, but we weren't just completely bowled over. I mean, we knew we were good band. I think you kind of have to have that confidence, whether false or not, just to kind of get onstage and play in front of people. So, we believed in what we were doing, we just didn't think anyone would catch on to it, ‘cause it wasn't really stuff that people were playing very much at the time.
PSF: Yeah, and you guys sound really grounded in those early interviews, especially considering a lot of these English papers like to hype the band du jour.
MA: Right. Well, we were a little older; by the time Mudhoney started, I was 26. We weren't readers of NME or anything like that, but we were kind of familiar with the whole M.O. of these weeklies, which was to blow smoke up a young band's ass and get them to say really a really stupid thing and then shoot them down a couple weeks later. And they're still doing it! And bands are still falling for it! It's just hilarious.
PSF: You always had that snarky sense of humor in music, which I think set you apart from those 1990's bands, because it seems there were a lot of groups that took themselves too seriously.
MA: Well, you know, life, as tragic as it is, is also totally hilarious. I mean, it's just completely absurd. If you take everything just completely serious, you're going to end up blowing your head off. That's nothing I really wanted to do.
PSF: I also think one of the best songs you ever did was "Generation Spokesmodel" [from My Brother the Cow]
MA: I haven't even thought of that song in a long time.
PSF: "Twenty percent of the gross goes straight to the man."
MA: It's probably more than that, actually.
PSF: And "Hey kids, how do I look on the cover of Spin?" I think that's another classic line.
MA: You know I think I remember Spin didn't give that record a very favorable review... Might've cut a little too close to home.
PSF: You guys continue to do all these side projects. What keeps Mudhoney together making music?
MA: Maybe it's the fact that we do all these different side projects. We don't feel any pressure; we've never felt too much pressure. We were always well aware that any pressure a band might feel is largely self-imposed. You can respond to it however you want. If something goes crazy, like Matt Lukin quits, we just take a year off, no problem. Steve and I got our ya-yas out by doing a second Monkeywrench record. And then by that time, Dan, who when Matt quit wasn't sure if he wanted to continue in the band anymore, was really bored and itching to play. Okay, great! No rash decisions were made.
PSF: What is Matt up to these days? Do you keep in touch?
MA: Yeah. He's a carpenter, a cabinet maker. He's the only one of the original band that had any kind of skills. Both him and I went to college, but he went to cabinet-making trade school, and I got an English degree. His is way more useful than mine. (laughs)
PSF: Does it ever surprise you that Mudhoney's one of the few Seattle bands that's still active?
MA: I don't really think about it too much, but every once in a while, usually when doing an interview or something, someone goes, "You've been together for like 18 years." Holy shit, we've been together for 18 years! That's weird! It doesn't seem like it's been that long.
PSF: I guess time flies when you're having fun, huh?
MA: It's gonna fly whether you're having fun or not. Except for, like you know, when you're having a really hard time. At that point, when you're in the midst of that hard time, it's gonna seem like it takes forever. But looking back on it, that went just as fast as anything else.
PSF: I know Mudhoney has done a lot of cover songs by all these other punk bands, and I also remember your version of "The Rose." Is there any song you'd like to cover but haven't?
MA: You know what's so weird? I never really thought of us as being a cover band. In fact, we're the kind of musicians who for the most part learned to play on our own, and not by listening to other records learning how to figure out what other people were doing, initially at least, you know. Doing covers for a long time was like a total mystery to me. How can you even tell what those guys are doing? (laughs) And then somewhere along the line I guess we figured it out.
PSF: Why did you chose "The Rose"?
MA: That was a holdover from Mr. Epp days. I think "The Rose" just struck us as a really absurd, retarded song. And I have this riff and we married the lyrics to that riff and then Mudhoney needed a song for a B-side or something and we dragged out "The Rose." It was done pretty much in the last six months that Mr. Epp was a band and Steve Turner was in Mr. Epp for the last six months. So, you know, might as well just bring it along.
PSF: And I'd like to ask a few questions about the new album, Under a Billion Suns. It kind of reminds me of the last album. On the last one, you said you wanted to go for a Hawkwind vibe and it carries over to this one as well.
MA: Well, the Hawkwind vibe is really, I think, there in "Sonic Infusion" (from Since We've Become Translucent) in particular. And it might be a little bit in the first song ("Where Is the Future"), but... it's just the next group of songs we wrote after Since We've Become Translucent. I've been asked "What were you thinking going in to writing this record?" There wasn't any kind of plan, what we wanted to record to turn out like, except that we wanted it to be something that we liked. And the lyrics are just a reflection of the dark times we're in, just trying to deal with them and come to terms with them and maybe mock them without just writing a Noam Chomsky-like treatise.
PSF: Well, you put that on different albums; there was "FDK" from My Brother the Cow; there was also "Talkin' Randy Tate Specter Blues."
MA: And "This Is the Life." Most of the people I've talked to don't seem to even realize those songs exist. It's kind of funny. It's like, "You're political now! Tell me about that!" I came age listening to punk rock, and Crass is one of my favorite bands, and Discharge, and Rudimentary Peni, and Black Flag, who were political in a whole different sense. And Really Red was one of the great lost political punk bands. Not "lost," but they never really got, I think, the credit they deserved, because I thought at the time, and still do, think they were one of the best that ever was.
PSF: And a couple of years ago, you were involved with an organization called No Vote Left Behind. Why don't you tell me a bit about that?
MA: I kind of felt like I had to do something. I couldn't just sit back and watch another election happen, and if, like, Bush had won, and [I would] not have done anything, I don't think I could have lived with myself.
PSF: I remember at the time of the election, there was a quote by you, I think, in the Seattle Stranger: "I'll do everything I can to get that ratfucker out of office."
MA: (laughs) Of course, everything I can (do) isn't very much, unfortunately. I like calling him "ratfucker."
PSF: I think it sort of fits him. Definitely "Where's the Future" has a dig at the administration, too.
MA: Yeah, but you know, that's not even this administration. It's (about a) whole letdown. It was promised in the fifties and sixties, what was going to be happening. I remember hearing, "By the year 2000, we'll be living in pods on the moon," or something... .You remember shows like Space: 1999? It's like, "This is what the future's gonna look like," from the seventies or whatever. It's like, thirty years later, actually we're still here on Earth, maybe just a little more polluted, a little more fucked up. People aren't making any great strides forward; in fact, they're making strides backward.
PSF: I once saw a list of some of your favorite records, and it included not only Hawkwind but also Amon Duul. Do you listen to a lot of those Krautrock bands?
MA: Yeah... I like Neu!, Faust, and Ash Ra Tempel.
PSF: Ash Ra Tempel, they're certainly, I think, one of the heavier Krautrock bands.
MA: I don't have their full catalog, but the couple of records I have, Like their first album, side one and side two is one long song. The first side is really heavy and crazy and the second side is more ethereal.
PSF: What about Can? Do you like Can?
MA: Can is so early to me, ‘cause after reading about PiL and I think Metal Box came out, there were all these references to Can, so I started listening to Can then. I didn't pick up on the other Krautrock bands ‘til way, way later. Can's pretty apart. And I think they're pretty apart from anything anyway.
PSF: You did a show with Bo Diddley too. What was that like?
MA: Our set was great. Dan sometimes get a little too amped before we play, and I think sometimes it might be a little bit of a pressure that he feels, like being the headlining band... he'll be a little hyper sometimes. But you could tell at the show he was so completely relaxed. He knew the people weren't there necessarily to see us. And he just played so in the pocket and had such a good groove going through the whole thing. The whole set was, I think, one of the best sets we ever played.
PSF: I'd also like to ask you about the Wylde Rattz. Weren't you supposed to have a record coming out?
MA: I have no idea what's going on with that. There was stuff recorded years ago, ‘97 or ‘98. As far as I know, the tapes are all owned by London Records, which is god knows where now, what company that's gotten bowled into. That was, I think, my first experience at rock and roll fantasy camp, getting to write songs and play with Ron Asheton, and, of course, Thurston and Steve Shelley and Mike Watt. But I never thought I'd meet Ron Asheton. The other guys, they're sort of like accessible people from my generation.
PSF: What about the MC5 tour? How did you become involved with that?
MA: They contacted me. To tell you the truth, I was kind of apprehensive. Just thinking of it from a fan's point of view, I was, "God, would I want to go see the MC5 with somebody else replacing Rob Tyner? And Fred Smith? Is that even going to work? And then me being in that position, am I going to be the guy getting eggs thrown at? I wasn't quite sure where everybody else was at at that time. I knew Wayne had been playing and putting out records for the duration... I went down there for practice and within five minutes my fears were all set aside. I was like, "Oh yeah, these guys are totally on fire. This will be great. And I think I can do this." My fears in terms how they were doing were put aside very quickly. My fears of myself... a little longer.
PSF: I heard Mudhoney's working on a DVD, right? Could you tell me a little bit about it?
MA: There's supposed to be a double DVD, and one of the disks is to compile music videos we've done over the years. And the other one is gonna compile stuff from lives shows, tapes that we've gotten that'll span the history of the band. I guess both disks will. I think that's pretty much it... .It's still in production.
PSF: Seattle has always had this close-knit music community; there's no egos or feuds. Why do you think that is?
MA: There's probably egos and feuds. In fact, I know there are. (laughs) But the egos and feuds are probably held by the people you've never heard of, rather than the people you have. The people who are like, "It should've been me!" (laughs) "Really? How do you figure?"
PSF: I remember knowing about all these Seattle bands. Like, Pearl Jam was friends with Soundgarden, you guys played shows with Nirvana.
MA: We're friends with Pearl Jam too, you know. We've known those guys for a really, really long time. Steve went to high school with Stoney (Gossard). Jeff (Ament) was in Green River, and then Stone was in Green River later, meaning four months later.
PSF: But there's never been this sense of competition between the bands.
MA: How do you compete in music?
PSF: Good point. You look at the British bands, like Oasis versus Blur, for example. I don't think there's any counterpart in Seattle.
MA: Thank God! Music isn't something that should have awards, it isn't something that should have awards, prizes, stuff like that. It's a completely subjective thing. Obviously, I don't feel that album sales have any reflection on how good a band is or how good the music is. It has nothing to do with that. And, to tell you the truth, I would emphatically say that the bigger a band is, the worse it is. Not always, but kind of generally, if you're in the top of the charts, your music's probably meaningless.
There's always going to be exceptions. Weird things will pop up now again and break through, but for the most part, it's always been that way. Go back to pop music in the fifties and sixties. There was a time there when rock and roll popped into the charts, but alongside the Beatles was "Yummy Yummy Yummy." And even lesser things than that. And there was more of that stuff than there was of the good stuff.
Also see the Sub Pop website for more Mudhoney madness
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